IT’S ALIVE! DARPA looks to build programmable, self-healing, living building materials

DARPA ELM program would develop materials that would combine the structural properties of traditional building ingredients with attributes of living systems

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How could living materials be used in a home? Consider the benefits to be gained from a chimney that heals after damage, a roof that breathes to control airflow, surfaces that don’t flake or fade, and a driveway that eats oil to clean up after spills.

Credit: DARPA

Perhaps one day we’ll see bridges that repair themselves or houses that could restore walls after a fire.

Sounds a bit like science fiction yes but a new program announced by the masters of making science fiction fact, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, this week announced a program that would combine the structural properties of traditional building ingredients with attributes of living systems to offer a class of living material that could be grown where needed, self-repair when damaged and respond to changes in their surroundings.

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DARPA said its Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program will develop tools and methods that facilitate the engineering of structural features into cellular systems that function as living materials, thereby opening up a new design space for construction technology. These living materials would display hallmarks of biological systems, such as the ability to actively sense and respond to the environment, or to heal after damage, the agency stated.

“The vision of the ELM program is to grow materials on demand where they are needed,” said ELM program manager Justin Gallivan in a statement. “Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

Using locally grown materials in construction is not entirely new, but their current manifestations differ substantially from the materials, DARPA stated. For instance, biologically sourced structural materials can already be grown into specified sizes and shapes from inexpensive feedstocks; packing materials derived from fungal mycelium and building blocks made from bacteria and sand are two modern examples. And, of course, wood has been used for ages. However, these products are rendered inert during the manufacturing process, so they exhibit few of their components’ original biological advantages.

DARPA said the long-term objective of ELM is to develop an ability to engineer structural properties directly into the genomes of biological systems so that neither scaffolds nor external development cues are needed for an organism to realize the desired shape and properties.

Achieving this goal will require significant breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of developmental pathways and how those pathways direct the three-dimensional development of multicellular systems.

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